Tuesday, May 9, 2023

PA Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve: Second Spring

The season of spring ephemerals is ending as the forest canopy overhead fills in. The forest floor, now dappled with filtered sunlight, is becoming shady and cooler. I'm scouting trails for a new phenology program and making note of the next phase of the spring guild of wildflowers, a second spring.

In this maturing oak forest, the quality of light is crucial for orchids which desire an ethereal, almost delicate blend of sun and shade. The whole forest floor is in motion with shadows of the early canopy dancing across banks of Mountain Laurel and Pink Azalea and for a time I am distracted by it and almost miss my first Whorled Pogonia of the afternoon. 

Whorled Pogonia, Isotria verticillata

It is sitting in the brightest shade nearest the trail and in full bloom with a small white lipped flower caged by three dark purple sepals. The flower seems to emit its own magical light, blinking on and off again as sunlight shifts across the forest duff. I know this plant will not be blooming when the summer hiking program begins - its bloom is as fleeting as the filtered light of the emerging canopy overhead. By late spring, then in deep shade, it cannot be found. 

Pink Lady Slipper, Cypripedium acaule

In a certain way, I love this stage of spring more than the early ephemeral season, as it requires the slow walk and steady search. Nothing is obvious. It requires something of you, some skin in the game, an investment in time and patience. The Pink Lady Slippers are everywhere but I need to adjust how I look into the woods to see them, despite  being one of the largest native orchids found in Pennsylvania. I see more when I hunker down and eye the forest from below crooked trunks of Mountain Laurel. 


Bracken Fern

I note both orchids in  my sketchbook, adding date, locations, and time of day, as these are important finds for tracking the changes in natural history of this successional oak forest. I'm thinking this trail may serve as an excellent phenology path and add those notes to my sketchbook, too. I'm excited to launch our new phenology program next year and make a few notes about that, adding another layer of distraction when all of a sudden an Ovenbird lands near by and startles me back into the moment. Wow! What a loud bird! 

Mountain Laurel

The Ovenbird continues to holler across the mountain - I'm sure they can hear him in Lancaster ten miles away. I wade through a bright thicket of Mountain Laurel, its old leaves spotted and brown with age, ready to drop as the new leaflets shoot up in bright green flames unfurling. Some might think the laurel is sick but it is a very healthy evergreen, preparing to shed the old foliage.

Indian cucumber root, Medeola virginiana

Canada Mayflower, Maianthemum canadense

Wild Pink Azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides

Everywhere are the Wild Pink Azaleas, or Pinxster Flowers to some. Their delicate pink hues are lost in the sun dappled green and tans of the forest floor but once I see one, I see hundreds. The blossoms are showy and airy, delicate stamens shooting far beyond the flower. Like many of the spring guild of wildflowers, this show won't last long.  Despite its fragile appearance, this plant thrives on disturbance and is quick to occupy a sunny opening in the canopy when a tree falls. In fact, most of the groups I observed were crowded into pools of sunlight. 

That said, this wild azalea does not compete well with invasive non-natives that can quickly overtake their habitat. Privet and bush honeysuckle are serious threats as they leaf out earlier than most shrubs, shading and crowding out native shrubs that are waiting for the perfect sun-shade conditions later in spring. My childhood woodlands of Wild Azalea under towering Red Oaks completely disappeared in five years under invasive pressures of bush honeysuckle. Privet and bush honeysuckle are good examples of ecological stressors that impede or compromise native wildflower progression during bloom periods.  Unchecked, an entire ecosystem can be affected, weakened, and disappear. 

Common Brown Cup Fungus, Peziza phyllogena

Almost invisible to the hurried hiker are the rafts of fungal structures emerging along the path. Edible varieties like the Brown Cups and Oyster Mushrooms are popping up in mixed hardwood forests, and gatherers who know their timing will note that Brown Cups appear a week or so before their favorite Yellow and Black Morels. I talked with a fellow turkey hunter at a recent event to hear him describe a group of gatherers who walked right up to his sit-spot in the woods to ask him whether he'd seen of their favorite mushroom. He wasn't happy about that, but did tell them it's too early. "The Brown Cups are just appearing - come back AFTER turkey season!" 

The special light of second spring

Notes:   We're starting a phenology group at Lancaster Conservancy and if you are local to York or Lancaster County, PA, watch for the start of this great long-term community-based conservation science project in winter of 2023-24! 

Check it out:    Nature's Notebook/ USA National Phenology Network https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook